Making a successful tech product in India requires nothing short of a revolution that brings about a wave of radical individualism.
Ripping off the packaging of Notion Ink’s Adam II tablet left me with a fleeting sense of pride of the type that I had long thought I had discarded. On a small white label on the back side of the box are the words: “Designed with love by Notion Ink Design Labs in India, made and assembled in China.”
Notion Ink is, of course, a Bangalore-based start-up that is one among the many companies that are looking to challenge a curious curse that has haunted the Indian technology sector. The curse, or hypothesis, depending on your philosophical bent, goes like this: No Indian technology company has ever been able to build a successful product.
Most CEOs I’ve spoken to seem fairly convinced of this. There are, of course, a few exceptions such as Tally or Ramco Systems—but it seems hardly fair to call it successful if it doesn’t make money (Ramco) or is not used outside Indian borders (Tally).
But to me, this curse seems to be more of an opportunity for the technology commentariat—which is often accused of living in a bubble— to explain how technology and design help challenge India’s old hierarchies and play a part in shaping India’s principal boulevard to meaning. The phrase ‘Designed in India, made in China’ is not just marketing tag but a stark expression of the Great Indian Dream and the revolution of self-hood that is sweeping our country.
No nightmares here
Must a nation aspiring to significance have its own national dream? The Americans have one; though a great many struggle to find it these days. For Europeans, perhaps it is a dream of leaving behind their history of war and forging a continent of peace. The South Africans might argue for a dream that brings an end to the racial dagger that still poisons its citizens.
Does India have a dream? Is it about merely taking after the West through a dream whose highest purpose is ensuring that our deeply divided demographic can sustain a thriving democracy? There are even pundits who would argue that India’s greatest dream would be one where we return to our villages; signaling a return of an old, chauvinist Hindu-centric culture.
To me at least, the Great Indian Dream is more about turning the glass mirror inwards and coming up with a ‘me-centric’ dream. The Indian dream is one of self-invention and re-invention; one where a person can author his or her own future.
It is a dream where you can become yourself without being weighed down by the shackles of economic class, caste, religion, your parent’s occupation, etc. It is a dream where a young woman can move out of her parent’s house but still stay within the same city and visit on weekends. It is a dream where a young man can embrace the power of technology, consumption and money culture while still using a laptop and Skype to take part in his family’s slokha classes even as he sits in America. The dream is a curious type of selfhood that realizes the importance of duty and culture in the natural order of things.
A piece of the puzzle
Where does technology and design fit into this Indian dream? From the early 1980s and 90s, to 2007 – the Indian technology industry was the Indian IT industry. What is curious is that when Naryana Murthy, F.C Kohli and Shiv Nadar birthed the IT industry, it did not come with a lasting burst of radical individualism and libertarianism that one saw with the rise of Silicon Valley. The Indian IT industry did not bring with it a radical altering of our cultural or national ethos.
To be sure, the IT industry was the first step towards the Great Indian Dream. It put money in the hands of its young software engineers. It allowed them to buy cellphones, go to nightclubs, purchase houses of their own—the first steps to a nuclear family—which were objects that allowed them a sphere of privacy and individual identity of a kind they had never known before.
But the end result of the IT industry was one of a failed revolution. The IT industry became about promoting and retaining the old order—the TCS and the Infosys job today are similar to the government job of the 1960s and 70s. A safe, family-approved job with little risk if you will. The work of an IT engineer is one, at its heart, which looks at stamping out any expression of selfhood.
There is no better representation of the IT industry’s downward spiral into conservatism than the life-cycle of pioneer Narayana Murthy—who, as legend has it, sold his wife’s jewelry to come up with the initial capital for Infosys (something that was unheard of back then). It is the same Narayana Murthy who today has brought his son back into the family business; after years of lecturing India Inc against doing the same.
A single image
Creating a tech product is a clear manifestation (one among the many) of how the Indian dream presents itself today; it comes with a revolution of selfhood that involves leaving a mark on the world.
The good news is that it’s happening all over India in a million acts of private daring. The daring happens every time an entrepreneur duo defy their parents to start India’s largest e-commerce company (Flipkart)—but at the same time are helped by pocket money from their parents to sustain themselves as the business grows.
It happens when a group of volunteers in distant Assam get fed up with receiving little software support for their native language and manage to build an Assamese word processor (similar to that of Microsoft Word) to help out their local community.
Closer home in Chennai, a city that is neither typically Western nor traditionally Indian, hackathons are becoming a step towards divorcing the self from the IT industry. These two-day coding competitions are meant for college students “who want to demonstrate their talent” and for smart engineers “who are stuck in an IT services company.” It is the rejection of IT services as a field and the embracing of design that is crucial here.
Building a successful tech product will happen when the opportunity to become the fullest possible expression of oneself happens in India. Perhaps it’s already here—‘Designed in India, made in China’ indeed.